"Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in the town;
Sometimes I get a great notion
To jump in the river ... an' drown."
Good Night Irene --- Ledbetter & Lomax
(Performed once by the Grateful Dead, 12/31/83)
This quote from a song begins Kesey's classic and provides the title of his book. The central character in the work could be said to be the river the Wakonda Auga that flows down from the Cascades to meet the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The setting is 1950s Oregon in a small logging town on the coast. It is said we write best about things we know and this is what Kesey knew best -- perhaps not this little fictional logging town but others like it and the detail he goes into makes this very evident, from the descriptions of native flora and fauna to the endless rain of Oregon winters to the honking of great masses of Canadian geese migrating south so loud they allow no sleep. Then again the central character could be Hank Stamper, Lee Stamper or the father of the whole Stamper brood, Henry. Or perhaps just the damn Stampers in general who have put the whole town out of the logging business with a strike-breaking contract that is to be fulfilled with only the Stamper clan.
I first read this book when I was 18 and have just reread it at the age of 53. It is amazing what the perspective of age can bring to a work of this breadth and magnitude. Back then I knew this was a great work but I couldn't really appreciate what it was about. Now I have more of a handle but not one hundred percent comprehension. I think that would come from a college professor or serious NY Times literary critic. By no means is it a perfect work. It was only Kesey's second book and one wonders how the editors at Viking could have left such devices as Kesey's blatant recapping of the plot in the middle of the book,in case the reader has missed his very subtle hints of an incestuous relationship. Another annoying literary device is his switching between his characters first person point-of-view without even a double spacing between paragraphs. Yet these things do not take away from the greatness of this work. They merely lend it eccentric hints.
There are several plot lines going on here. The one that makes this an American classic of the 1900s is that of the rugged individualist (Henry Stamper) and his "Never Give An Inch" attitude toward life. He works hard and plays hard and is larger than life and knows his business of logging, a very dangerous profession. This time period of the 1950s is when unions were perhaps at their peak strength and were striking for a six hour work day for eight hours of pay. Henry Stamper sees his opening and signs a contract to provide logs to the main West Coast timber industry corporation, fictionally named Wakonda Pacific instead of the great robber barron timber corporations that raped that part of the world. Anyone who has, as I have in Mendocino County, walked through a clear-cut knows how the land is trashed. This has the effect of putting all his neighbors and friends out of work and is creating some really harsh conditions for his family. His son Hank, the All-America athlete in everything in high school (and the strongest son-of-a-bitch in the county) sums up the the family attitude to a union official who challenges him on his ethics and relationships and loyalties to his friends and neighbors: "Listen... listen to me Mister. I'm just as concerned as the next guy, just as loyal. But if...the Woodworker's Union or anybody-- gets into it with me, then I'm for me! When the chips are down, I'm my own patriot. I don't give a goddam the other guy is my own brother..." Draeger (the union official) smiled sadly. "And what of self-sacrifice. If you really believed what you say about yourself... you would be in for some pretty selfish loyalty--" "Call it whatever you want, that's the way I intend to play it. You can tell my good friends and neighbors Hank Stamper is as heartless as a stone if you want. You can tell them I care just as much about them as they did about me..." This is a timeless theme and central to the core of our hearts and souls and Kesey has his finger right on the pulse of it all in this book.
Another theme is brother against brother. Lee is the wayward son who left with his elitist mother who wanted no part of the Stamper mentality and wanted her son to be educated at an Ivy league school. As a child Lee has seen his mother being diddled by his half-brother Hank through a knothole between their rooms and has carried around his rage all these years. When the Stampers need another of their own to fulfill the contract they ask him to come help out. With thoughts of revenge, he readily accepts and works hard and eventually ends up diddling Hank's wife while his brother watches from a knothole in the adjacent room, the same one he used to use.
So these are the three central themes. The suspense builds as various dramas leave the Stampers shorthanded and working against the winter rains to fulfill their contract. There are of course many other side characters of small-town life along the way and Kesey paints them in eloquently with his words. All through this drama the Wakonda Auga river runs through it. This is a great work of fiction by an American author who wrote too few books, much as Jerry Garcia sang too few songs. Put it on your list of books to read. You'll be glad you did.
Most people know this is Kesey's most critically acclaimed, seminal work. It is my holiday read but looks as if I'll finish it as quickly as the author of the forward did.
"Look... Reality is greater than the sum of it's parts, also a damn site holier. And the lives of such stuff as dreams are made of may be rounded with a sleep but they are not tied neatly with a red bow. Truth doesn't run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And The Scenes Gone By an The Scenes To Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface. So don't sweat it. For focus simply move a few inches back or forward. And once more...look"
Awesome! Kesey wrote this in 1964, well after experimenting with acid. He didn't write another thing for 20 years and never achieved the greatness of this book. A cliche, I know, but this is one of the most important works of an American author in that century.
"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail"- by Cheryl Strayed.
I really loved this memoir of a young woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trial alone. She's not a Deadhead, but maybe similar in spirit. She does mention hearing of Jerry's passing during the hike and attending a memorial. And to think I have a backpack in my closet I only used once about 10 years ago.....:(
into some things, and perhaps not enough into others. And altogether too many street signs. Wish I had time for books, too.
Tom Clancy in all his slow-paced, ascerbic bestas Jack Harris.
I guess you could say my New Year's resolution was to finish all the books I've started and put down over the years. Somehow I'm able to pick up a book after not reading it for an extended period of time and instantly recall everything that's gone on. Anyway, my current task is finishing "The Iliad," which I put down back in '05. It's a hefty read, though, and has been tough to get through as my time to read is limited (my wife and I are expecting our first little bundle of joy and future Deadhead).
As for whether or not I'd recommend "The Iliad," that's a definite YES. While it's extremely dated as a topical story, it's a mesmerizing read and is thoroughly captivating to the imagination. My only regret is not having the time to sit down and finish it all in one sitting.
Manzanar, very important book.
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was seven years old when her family was rounded up and shipped off to the Manzanar internment camp in California for the duration of WWII. This fall semester, I'll be teaching this text in a developmental writing class, along with March to Freedom by Edith Singer, who was sixteen years old when her family was rounded up and shipped off to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during WWII.